Harvard Law School Cancels Coat-of-Arms Over Slavery

September 5, 2021 Updated: September 6, 2021


Harvard Law School (HLS) has changed its law school heraldry. Members of the HLS Community were recently informed of the adoption of a new shield by John Manning, who is the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard.

He stated that, “the simple, elegant, and beautiful design of the new shield captures the complexity, the diversity, the limitlessness, the transformative power, the strength, and the energy that the HLS community … sees in Harvard Law School.”

The school had appointed a working group, the members of which were tasked to determine the suitability of its shield, and possibly to recommend a new design to the Harvard authorities.

In their report, the working group indicated that the shield originally created for HLS was “based on the family crest of Isaac Royall, Jr., whose 1779 bequest to Harvard College would eventually endow the first professorship of law at Harvard.”

But, as explained in the report, historical research undertaken in 2016 had revealed that Royall earned his wealth through the “labor of enslaved people.”

Epoch Times Photo
The entrance to Harvard Law School campus is seen in this file photo. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

This revelation, which sparked much discussion and spawned a “Royall Must Fall Movement,” precipitated the efforts of the working group.

The working group interviewed staff members, students, and alumni of the HLS Community and organised focus groups.

Some interviewees argued that the original blue shield, adorned with three sheaves of wheat, should be retained because it served as an important reminder of “the pervasiveness of the legacy of slavery and its continuing impact on the world.”

However, this view never really stood a chance of winning the argument.

Indeed, the school, in light of the immoral origins of the Royall family’s philanthropy, decided to retire the shield and replace it with a new design.

It was inevitable that the original shield would be targeted once the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) found traction in the United States (and, indeed, throughout the world).

Many members of HLS saw the shield as “a distasteful symbol of the past rather than as an opportunity to learn from that past.”

The BLM movement came into existence in July 2013 following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager in February 2012.

Although the movement was responsible for many street demonstrations in the United States, it gained international exposure predominantly in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis. It is a political and social movement that seeks to expose police brutality, advocate for criminal justice reform, and end racial discrimination.

Epoch Times Photo
Black Lives Matter protestors in Skid Row, Los Angeles, Calif., on Dec. 30, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Although many Americans (and Australians) agree with the anti-discrimination message, BLM cannot hide the fact that, in its operations and ideology, it relies on “race” much the same way Marxists rely on “class” to divide society.

This sordid episode in the life of HLS, however, exposes an embarrassing surmise.

If the compromised shield had been removed because of its profoundly immoral origins, the law school should then return the bequest it received from Royall’s estate, and not use it to support its present activities.

Merely replacing the shield with a new design, whilst keeping Royall’s financial largesse, which made the founding of HLS in 1817 possible, is simple hypocrisy.

Students pass in front of Harvard’s Widener Library in Cambridge, Mass., on Oct. 10, 2003. (William B. Plowman/Getty Images)

Observers may find the reason for replacing the original shield confronting, especially because it may well set the law school on a slippery slope.

One of the great contributions of HLS to the teaching of law is its elaboration on the Socratic teaching method.

This method involves the teaching of law by asking questions of students about the studied materials, jurisprudential developments, and hypothetical scenarios.

It makes students think about the role of law in society and it sharpens their ability to reason.

This teaching method was first introduced by Professor Christopher Columbus Langdell who served as Dean of HLS from 1870 to 1895.

If one assumes Langdell’s name was inspired by famous discoverer of the Americas, Christopher Columbus, we can anticipate that the anti-Columbus movement now sweeping the United States will not spare the illustrious Dean.

Indeed, using the same logic that saw the original HLS shield replaced, one could argue that the Socratic teaching method has also been irretrievably tainted by racism because of Columbus’ brutal journey to the Americas, which involved what many would deem human rights abuses by today’s standards.

Perhaps, it would be safer just to remove the Socratic method altogether and relegate students to simply listening and absorbing one lecture after another to no end?

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published novels as well including, “A Twisted Choice,” and short story, “The Greedy Prospector” in “The Outback” anthology (Boolarong Press, 2021).